Early local baseball teams named themselves the Know-nothings and Bummers

Manager Charles Reed poses proudly with his Caldwell “Champions of Idaho.”
Manager Charles Reed poses proudly with his Caldwell “Champions of Idaho.” Provided by Arthur Hart

Although a number of baseball teams were formed in Boise during the 1870s — including the public school Dodgers of 1875, who played the town team Capitals — the most important feature of the decade was the intense rivalry that developed between town teams and soldier teams from Fort Boise. The Fort and the town had grown up together since 1863 and knew a lively interaction in social life that was occasionally antagonistic but generally friendly. The little frontier town of the ’60s and ’70s felt it needed the military post for protection against attack by Indians, and the men at the Fort enjoyed the pleasures of the town, including its saloons and brothels, as an escape from the boredom and routine of Army life.

“The Nationals of Idaho” was the team name chosen by the young men of Boise City as they prepared to take on the soldiers on March 25, 1875. They were, noted the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman, “all of splendid physique and powers of endurance, but wanting in the practice and familiarity with the game which distinguishes the veterans of Fort Boise.” That day “on the plain near the fort” the locals were painfully humiliated by the soldiers 61-18. No box score was kept, but we can be sure there were many more errors than base hits. The Boise boys needed that “endurance” just to chase the ball around the outfield all afternoon.

The local “Nationals” of 1877 no doubt took their name from the “National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs,” formed in New York City in 1876, and still going strong 141 years later. (The American League was not fully established until 1903, when the first World Series was played).

During the 1870s, standard rules were adopted, and players increased their skills enough that fewer fielding errors were committed. Many of the strategies that are part of the game today, such as holding the runner on first, the sacrifice bunt, use of the curve ball, and varying the speed of pitches, also developed during this time.

Readers of the Idaho Statesman were given a glimpse of baseball as played in the Eastern states in July 1870: “We notice that this popular game, frequently called ‘the national game,’ has again taken possession of the youths in the east, and they are nearly all ‘on the bat.’ ” Some of the names adopted by the clubs are striking, if not peculiar: ‘Red stockings,’ ‘Blue Stockings, ‘White Stockings,’ ‘Dirty Stockings,’ ‘Fir Mountains,’ ‘Hay Makers,’ ‘Peeled Heels,’ ‘Silver Heels,’ etc. The Red Stockings,’ or ‘Cincinnatis,’ are the acknowledged champions of the United States, and after a contest, would be of the world. We have seen these boys play and can endorse everything said of them.”

Local teams also chose striking names. The “Know-nothings” and the “Bummers” played a game at the Fort in 1879, called after four innings with the Bummers leading 13-10. Later Boise teams would sport these names: “Lobsters,” “Clippers,” “Chicagos,” “Cherubs” and “Fruit Pickers.”

Baseball flourished in the 1880s in Idaho, and inter-city contests and talk of state championships began to be heard. The rules were changed several times in the decade, with the number of balls for a walk reduced from nine to eight in 1880, to seven in 1882, to six in 1884, back to seven in 1886, to five in 1887, and finally to four in 1889. This sped up the game considerably. The pitcher’s box was backed up from 45 to 50 feet from home plate, and by the late ’80s, pitchers were allowed to throw overhand. As they threw harder, strikeouts became a feature of the game, even though for a time batters were allowed four strikes.

Army teams from the Fort continued to outplay civilian talent in the early ’80s. The season opener in 1883 was won by the soldiers 30-2. In 1891 Caldwell proudly claimed the title “Champions of Idaho” even though there was not yet a statewide league. In 1893 Boise’s Capital club had defeated Caldwell three games in a row before the Fourth of July. A new Capital Baseball Association was formed with several local businesses subscribing $150 each to support the team. The money was used for travel, uniforms and equipment. Boise fans were in love with the game, and most took losses stoically and cheered wins with enthusiasm.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.